Southern Illinois is rich with history and the tiny community of Thebes has it own piece of the historical pie embodied in a small courthouse. The two-story building is perched atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi river just a few miles from where it joins with the Ohio River.
The depth of the river here, just over 4 feet more than 150 years ago, was enough for the steamboats to navigate and the town became a busy steamboat port. Union troops passed by on their way to Fort Defiance downriver in Cairo.
In 1845, Thebes became the county seat for Alexander County. Unprepared for the honor, the first court session was held outdoors under an old elm tree. Realizing that a courthouse was needed, L.I. Lightner was given the task of designing and estimating the cost of a new courthouse. As stated in the records maintained at the National Register of Historic Places, Ernstt Barkhausen was hired to construct the building. The cost was $4,400. The land on which the courthouse sits was deeded to the county by Mr. and Mrs. George Sparhawk in 1845. Construction was completed in 1948.
The tiny courthouse was only in service until 1860. The county seat was then shifted to Cairo along with the courthouse and jail facilities for the county. The structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and the application for acceptance on the historical register gives exceptional details about its construction and later repairs.
Hand hewn local timbers were used for the walls. The floors and roof were hand sawn boards. The roof shingles, split and hand shaved were from local timber as well. The plaster was made from local lime and sand. At the time of the application, the plaster had stood up to the passage of time, at that point already 130 years.
The first floor had a women’s jail, a men’s jail, a hallway and two more rooms. The second floor contained the courtroom, which was divided into 4 smaller rooms in 1854. The four columns, the two-story porch, floor-length windows and the simplistic symmetry of its design are consistent with the style known as Southern Greek Revival.
The courthouse has ties to two important men of its time, though neither has been factually confirmed. It has been rumored that Abraham Lincoln practiced law here before embarking on his political career. However, the only source of the story of Lincoln’s presence in Thebes is a family friend whom Lincoln is believed to have visited and stayed with.
The second story has ties to the famed Dred Scott case that helped plunge the country into the Civil War. Lore claims that Scott stayed in the jail cell within the courthouse during part of his lengthy trial. When the case was decided, Scott was declared to still be a slave and ordered to turn himself in to the nearest authorities. Historians have discovered records that indicate an African-American man did stay in the jail at about the same time as when the court decision was passed down. It is possible that Scott turned himself in at Thebes.
Whether the stories are true or not, the courthouse is still a sight to behold. The view of the Mississippi River from the courthouse grounds is another reason to visit. It is currently used as a museum but is only open to the public for short periods during the summer. The exterior of the courthouse and several monuments on the grounds can be seen year round.
If you are interested in Civil War period history, read Ohio River Scenic Byway Stop #7 Alexander County.
Sources: Personal Visit, National Register of Hstorical Places, Waymarking